AFRICANGLOBE – Tony Blair was involved in attempting to secure business deals for wealthy clients in an African country that he also advised, according to recently revealed emails.
The emails sent between one of Mr. Blair’s charities – the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) – and the US government suggest the former British prime minister was eager to use his connections with sovereign wealth funds to secure deals in South Sudan, an impoverished African state with untapped oil reserves.
The latest disclosure threatens to embroil Mr. Blair in fresh criticism over his charitable activities. One Conservative MP said it was time for Mr. Blair to make a “full disclosure” of his various business dealings to ensure there was no conflict of interest between his “philanthropic” and moneymaking activities, while a leading human rights charity criticised Mr. Blair for being “opaque”.
The controversy follows the decision by the US arm of the charity Save the Children to give Mr. Blair its “Global Legacy” prize for his work alleviating poverty in Africa. The award led to a letter of protest from staff across the wider international charity. An online petition demanding the award be revoked has attracted more than 113,000 signatures.
The prize was in recognition of Mr. Blair’s work as prime minister and in setting up AGI in 2008. Since then AGI has embedded teams of its staff in at least nine African governments, offering advice on how to deliver “effective government”’, in a model based on Mr. Blair’s experience in Downing Street.
The emails obtained through a freedom of information request to the US government suggest Mr. Blair offered to use his extensive business contacts in South Sudan, where AGI was advising the president.
In an email sent on February 6, 2013, Tony Blair is praised by a senior US diplomat for being “tremendously helpful” in trying to attract financing to South Sudan, which had gained independence less than two years earlier. The Americans – through their international aid department USAID – were organising a conference in Washington, involving state donors and private sector investors, to help the South Sudanese government survive a fiscal crisis.
“Mr. Blair’s interest in helping secure funding for South Sudan could hardly come at a better time,” wrote Susan Page, the US ambassador to South Sudan, in an email to Nick Thompson, AGI’s chief executive. “Mr. Blair’s assistance in approaching potential lenders, such as sovereign wealth funds, to consider bridging loans for South Sudan would be tremendously helpful.”
It is unclear which “potential lenders” Mr. Blair intended to approach, nor is it clear if he was successful. Tony Blair is a well-paid consultant to high-finance clients, including JP Morgan, the investment bank, and Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund.
After the ambassador’s letter, Mr. Thompson replied requesting more information. “I wanted to come back to the question of Mr. Blair providing assistance to the government in their attempts to find interim financing,” wrote Mr. Thompson. “He remains keen to do so, though – to be completely honest, because we’re (understandably) not part of the discussions on eg the loan arrangements and have so little detail as to what they’re after and are able to provide by way of guarantee – it’s hard for us to know how to be the most effective in support.
“I wondered therefore if I might take up your offer of a call in the next few days, to better understand what’s happening in the run up to the multi-donor conference in March and if and how we might be additive in support? It may, for instance, be as simple as suggesting additional people who could come to the conference.”
Tony Blair’s team worked inside South Sudan until renewed fighting broke out in the country leading to Britain evacuating its diplomatic staff last December. The emails show how Mr. Blair and his AGI team extensively lobbied USAID for funding. In all, the US has given AGI about £4.5 million through grants for at least three projects.
In a statement, AGI said it was not involved in the refinancing deal in South Sudan as it was “not AGI’s area of expertise”.
A spokesman for Tony Blair’s private office said: “The South Sudan government was seeking assistance from the international community and asked if Mr. Blair could also help. It went no further than that and he did not investigate any ‘deals’. If Mr. Blair were to help South Sudan find potential investors, it would have been done on an entirely non-commercial basis and for no fee.”
The spokesman added: “Tony Blair’s advisory role with Mubadala and his work with his foundations are entirely separate. The work he does for AGI is pro bono, and through it he provides advice to African leaders on how to deliver reform agendas that increase the standard of living of their citizens.”
But Charlie Elphicke, the Tory MP for Dover, said: “People will be concerned that there is a great possibility for muddle between his philanthropy and business ventures. People will want to know there is transparency and that there isn’t a conflict of interest.”
The Government has refused to fund AGI despite direct appeals from Mr. Blair to Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary. One of the emails suggested that the Department for International Development (DfID) had tried to prevent AGI from working with the South Sudan government.
Bill Brands, the USAID head of mission in South Sudan, in an email to a colleague on September 19, 2012, wrote: “According to [AGI], although initially invited by a previous DfID director, DfID later explicitly asked them NOT to come to South Sudan and was not interested in coming to them. This delayed their approach to come in.”
The emails also disclose Mr. Blair and AGI’s burgeoning relationship with Ethiopia and Hailemariam Desalegn, its prime minister since 2012. In an email sent in April 2013, AGI keeps USAID informed about its plans to “get Tony to Ethiopia … to meet with the PM”. Mr. Blair visited Ethiopia in July 2013 and returned last April. Local media reported that he held discussions “on ways of expanding investment activities in the country”.
Mr. Blair’s involvement in Ethiopia was also made clear in a statement by his office defending the Global Legacy award decision, and complaining that the attempt to “traduce the reputation of Save the Children” was “neither balanced nor fair”.
Human rights campaigners criticised Tony Blair for taking a role with Ethiopia. Leslie Lefkow, of Human Rights Watch, said: “Blair and AGI’s activities in Ethiopia are opaque. How is he supporting governance in an authoritarian state that suppresses all independent criticism, where the police and security forces enjoy total impunity, and the ruling party won 99.6 per cent of the seats in the last election?”
By: Robert Mendick, Matthew Holehouse and Edward Malnick